By Marc Morgan
If one picks up one of the latest editions of The Economist newspaper (May 3rd – 9th 2014), a well-respected and influential publication in the business, economics and politics spheres, one would not be surprised of its content. But one should be worried about the increasing intellectual hostility the publication displays. On the front cover of this edition, leashed and perched over a globe of the world stands a bald eagle, the national symbol of the United States of America. It has its gaze fixed on the East, as it watches it burn. The headline reads ‘What would America fight for?’, which is the title of the edition’s lead story. In it, the editors appear disillusioned with the superpower’s present lack of war appetite.
This state of affairs is one that is meant to haunt all of us (where ‘us’ refers to America’s allies, thus ‘us’ in the West). America is portrayed as failing on its duties, they being the protection of the West’s (now ever more depleting) global hegemony. This is because ‘the most basic issue of a superpower’ is its ‘willingness to fight’. Of course, in passing, it must be mentioned that one must digest The Economist’s analysis with kilos of salt, which is never good for one’s health. Through its self-serving journalistic lens, the particular view of the world that it portrays is an increasing threat to equality, true liberty and meaningful democracy. Not to mention peace.
Democracy is what superpowers have been always sceptical about, although it becomes a useful cause when seeking to monopolise a foreign country’s resources. In supporting Western power, The Economist also seems to care little for what ordinary voters think. Recent cross-citizen surveys by the Pew research centre suggest that 52% of Americans questioned want their country to ‘mind its own business internationally’, only 6% would use military force over Ukraine, while huge majorities oppose military intervention in Syria. This is no great wonder in a country that has many visible traces of blood and scars on its hands. The Economist posits that President Obama’s reluctance to act as any ordinary superpower commander-in-chief would comes from him listening too closely to his people. If the US people are no longer willing to have its country ‘police the Middle East’ the world is likely to become ‘a more dangerous, nastier place.’
The Economist’s argument is more general and deeper than this. The US must continue to intervene because ‘regional powers are keener to dominate their neighbours’. But this principle, of intervention whenever a regional power dominates its neighbours, is not applied universally. It is asymmetrically used. Who intervened when the US dominated its own neighbours (Cuba, Central America and South America) throughout the past half-century? It is clear that it is all about preserving Western (particularly US) dominance around the world, given the emphasis put on ‘regional powers’ and the threat they pose to US hegemony if they succeed in dominating their neighbours. In short, the West stands to pay dearly if there is a change to the current global order (particularly because this order has traditionally favoured the commercial interests of the West). By definition The Economist believes that ‘whatever replaces the old order is much worse’.
The article gives some examples of the costs of this change. There will be a general reduction in freedoms: ‘International norms, such as freedom of navigation will be weakened…Global public goods such as free trade and lower cross-border pollution, will be harder to sustain’ (believing symmetrically free trade is actually practiced by the superpower). We will be tarnished by the unwarranted abuses of democracy: ‘majorities will feel freer to abuse minorities, who in turn may flee’ (namely more redistributive and inclusive politics will be the norm). Moreover, ‘global institutions will be less pliable’, that is to say that current U.S. hegemony (i.e. its veto power and exclusive decision-making power) over global institutions like the IMF, WTO and World Bank makes them very flexible to the needs of different country citizens.
The implied conclusion, once again, is that US dominance over world affairs is a win-win situation for all: Americans benefit from a system ‘that broadly suits them’ and the rest of the world ‘freeloads on the economic, diplomatic and military might of the United States.’ What goes unmentioned is that this supposed free riding of other countries might reflect an increasing unwillingness to use force in the U.S.’s self-created wars, which usually violate the United Nations Charter. Recent experience only shows the domestic political repercussions that more cooperative military tactics with the U.S. have had (Britain and Spain’s involvement in Iraq come to mind). In a further article on the same topic (‘The decline of deterrence’) The Economist cites Kurt Volker, the former U.S representative to NATO under both Bush and Obama, who equates the need to re-generate the superpower’s appetite for military intervention in the East with the need to create a loud enough ‘domestic outcry’ for military intervention, which is presently inexistent in the U.S. In other words, according to some, what is required is to ‘manufacture consent’ in some form or another, to borrow the phrase from Noam Chomsky. What is promising is that The Economist is quite a leader in this field.
It is worth reflecting on The Economist’s own version of ‘objective’ reporting that it has displayed throughout its existence. One needs to look no further than its own editorial philosophy and history. The distinguishing hallmark of the publication is its anonymity. There are no by-lines attached to its articles, so that the writers’ identities are unknown. The Economist equates this anonymity with objectivity; the writer does not need to be referenced because whatever is written is factual, objective and thus not the subject of opinion or prejudice. The ‘collective voice and personality’ of the paper ‘matter more than the identities of individual journalists’, (which ironically sounds distinctly socialist in the abstract). Accordingly, this anonymity ‘ensures a continuity of tradition and consistency of view which few other publications can match’. This ancestral form of editorial worship is rooted in the ‘belief that what is written is more important than who writes it’, which in itself is a noble principle. But anonymity should not be seen as a substitute for objectivity. Fully disclosed to the public is the paper’s religious belief in free trade and free markets, which form the uncompromising premises to all of its economic analyses.
This unshakable belief (some might call it ‘prejudice’ to the disappointment of the editors) in free market ideology and Western military and economic hegemony has marked its historical stance on numerous important issues from advocating laissez-faire policies during the Great Irish Famine (Ó Gráda, Cormac (1995) The great Irish famine. p. 45), to supporting the Vietnam War and the recent invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, coupled with its outright support for NATO (which targets to maintain military spending at 2% of GDP for all member states, a goal that only Britain and the US meet). The Economist’s particular and disclosed admiration of American interests and values is certainly an undisclosed prejudice and very far from representing any form of objectivity.
In terms of political endorsement, ‘the extreme centre is the paper’s historical position’, as noted by Geoffrey Crowther, the paper’s editor from 1938 to 1956, a position it still maintains today, apparently. This is supposedly evidenced by the claim that ‘The Economist considers itself the enemy of privilege, pomposity and predictability. It has backed conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. It has supported the Americans in Vietnam. But it has also endorsed Harold Wilson and Bill Clinton…’ These are, it seems to me, contradictory statements. To be the enemy of privilege while publically endorsing the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, whose legacy was all about expanding the privileges of the privileged to the detriment of the wider society, begs qualification. To be against pomposity in the face of one’s ‘own’ politicians heralding that ‘there is no alternative’ to free-market policies, nor anything resembling society in the modern world, again lacks credibility. As for predictability, no other publication can rival The Economist in the predictability of its public endorsements, given its ‘ancestral worship’ to an unmovable line of thinking and given the fact that in all the fifteen British general elections since 1955 the paper has openly supported the Conservative Party on twelve of those occasions (so 80% of the time). On any account, by publically taking sides on general elections on both sides of the Atlantic, this certainly compromises the paper’s self-claimed independence.
Piketty’s dangerous drift to ‘the left’
In the same May edition The Economist published two article reviews of Thomas Piketty’s new ‘blockbuster’ academic book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Both articles make explicit comparisons with Marx, labelling Piketty ‘a modern Marx’ or even ‘bigger than Marx’. This is not good news for typical Economist readers. Although the book, an expansive analysis of income and wealth inequalities in the rich world, is a ‘great piece of scholarship’, the world will be a poorer place if Piketty’s policy recommendations are heeded to (a global tax on capital wealth, top marginal tax rates of 80%…). This is because ‘“Capital” drifts to the left and loses credibility.’
It is no wonder that when one parts from unshakable free-market premises one concludes a policy proposal that ‘smacks of socialist ideology and not scholarship.’ But how should reasonable scholarship proceed in this context? By setting up a standard ‘value-free’ neoclassical microeconomic model, riddled with mathematics, value-loaded assumptions (no inequality, no unemployment, everyone despising work…) that ultimately determine the conclusions of the model?
It is important to point out these careless allusions to objective reporting and also to reporting that purports to make the world a safer, better place, before our own manufactured consent leaves us with nothing to socially fight for.